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Mel Gibson is Santa Claus in gritty action thriller, ‘Fatman’, and words fail us

Look, some concepts are just so wild that you have to take a look just to convince yourself that it’s real.

Omit a few key details and Fatman, the latest feature from filmmaking siblings Eshom and Ian Nelms, could just be another geriactioner of the type that has sustained Liam Neeson in his dotage. Mel Gibson plays an ageing tough guy who finds himself having to rely on his “certain set of skills” once more when he winds up in the crosshairs of a lethal assassin (the great Walton Goggins of The Shield/Sons of Anarchy/Justified fame). The wrinkle is that the assassin has been hired by Billy Wenan (Chance Hurstfield), a rich, spoiled 12 year old kid who is peeved at Gibson because he left a lump of coal for him on Christmas morning – because Gibson is Chris Cringle, aka Santa Claus.

That’s the joke, folks, and it’s almost the only one going in this absolute curio of a film. Which is not to say that Fatman isn’t funny; rather, the whole thing is played almost absolutely straight, relying on the yawning chasm between the absurdity of the situation and the unblinking seriousness of the lead performances to generate laughs.

Grizzled old Gibson, who is likely going to spend the rest of his career sniffing out interesting low budget roles rather than headlining blockbusters for reasons that should need no elaboration here, is right in his comfort zone as Cringle, here envisioned as a tough but near-broken man barely holding on to his family business by his fingernails. Loss of faith and the rise of bad behaviour in children (a pretty conservative theme for a film predicated on such an anarchic idea) has seen turnover drop sharply, to the point where Cringle has to set his elves to making missile parts for the Pentagon on a short term contract. His wife, Ruth (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) is supportive, but Chris is soul-sick, drinking too much, spending his spare time in target practice or wailing in a heavy bag, and lamenting the sorry state of the world.

So when Goggins’ “Skinny Man”, who has his own holiday-themed trauma lurking in his backstory, hovers into view, it’s an almost welcome challenge; rather than deal with the more general universal drift towards cynicism and naughtiness, Chris has a single bad guy to battle, with all the gunplay you might expect from the film’s stated high concept.

Well, almost. Fatman spends an awful lot of time in set up and exposition, and not so much as you’d want dealing with the actual conflict at hand. Tonally, it works about half the time; when it’s firing on all cylinders, the mix of deadpan delivery and cheerful iconoclasm is not a million miles away from Danny DeVito’s unsung classic Death to Smoochy (and track that one down if it’s slipped past you, by the way). When it’s not, we’re kind of just waiting for the mayhem to kick off, while Goggins methodically stalks his prey and Gibson gruffly grumbles his way through scene after scene.

But uniqueness has its own value, and let’s face it: a straight-faced, slyly satirical action thriller take on Santa Claus starring Max Rockatansky and Boyd Crowder is probably not going to come along too often, which means it’s absolutely worth checking out. Whether it lands for any given viewer is hard to say; it’s such a weird, singular swing that I suspect it’s going to only completely connect with a very small audience, but that audience is going to love the living hell out of it. That’s the very definition of a cult movie right there, and Fatman certainly qualifies as one.

Fatman hits cinemas November 19 via Icon Films.